THE MAN FRIEND PROJECT

Terrorism and a fun run. There is little obvious connection apart from perhaps security concerns if it was a particularly well-attended fun run.

But a thought I had at the end of my children’s school’s fun run has grown and meandered in the month since, a month that’s been scarred by atrocities, and finally driven me to write something on a subject I’ve been meaning to tackle all year: men.

As I rounded the last bend on the Peckham Rye running course there was two people in front of me on the fun run. My shins had seized up, I’d not set a satisfactory time. And yet I found the strength – mental and physical – to sprint the last 200 yards and get past the pair ahead.

The folk I overtook thought the small crowd were cheering their effort, in fact they were cheering because I’d turned the fun run competitive for a brief moment.

Now this story is remarkably like one that Grayson Perry tells in his excellent book The Descent of Man. He’s a keen cyclist and recounts a strange urge to catch up and defeat a fellow cyclist ahead of him on a hill.

It’s a stupid masculine behaviour.

And it is stupid. Being competitive or aggressive is not particularly helpful in the game of life if you want to reproduce, it’s not some in built behaviour, as Cordelia Fine so elegantly explains in her latest book. And in the same tome she trashes the idea that men are beholden to testosterone in the way they behave.

Part of me was delighted at overtaking two fellow runners on the final stretch. Part of me was delighted that I’d made them feel silly for thinking the crowd was cheering them when it was me, or at least the race scenario I’d engendered they were hollering about. But more of me was appalled at me, a fully paid up feminist for many years now, falling foul of a daft masculine trope.

In the weeks since there’s been a string of terrorist attacks – in Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park. The attackers of course had one thing in common – they were men. And for what feels like the first time people are beginning to take seriously the masculinity element in terrorism. The links between terror attackers and domestic abuse are being exposed.

Competition and control are bits of the male jigsaw that make an ugly picture.

And there was another element that’s fed into my thinking about masculinity.

At new year I made three new year’s resolutions.

One was to be nicer to homeless people, there’s so many of them now compared to the New Labour years when the problem was all but wiped out. I now carry some loose change in my pocket ready to hand out if approached or if I see someone sleeping rough. It’s a start.

I can’t remember what the second resolution was. Probably something to do with golf.

And third I resolved to make a friend. A man friend.

My partner pointed out that I already have friends. And that’s true. But I responded by explaining that I have a healthy heart (I know this because I had my age 40 NHS MOT last year) but that doesn’t stop me trying to keep fit. My mental and physical health may be fine at the moment (and both have fluctuated over the years), but that only means that now is the time to take measures to ensure both stay that way.

And my Man Friend Project is about mental health largely. I want to interrogate what it means to be and have a friend and why men are so bad at making new ones.

One of the best ways to inoculate yourself against poor mental health is to have a support network, inevitably made up of family and friends. The evidence suggests that men with the widest support networks enjoy the best mental health. (Caveats apply of course, having lots of friends does not mean inevitably you won’t get depressed for example).

Again, referring back to Grayson Perry’s book he suggests men accumulate friends in a different way to women. While women pick up friends at school then add more at college and more at each job they have men drop friends at each stage. So when they leave school they will join a new circle at friends at university or work and take only one or two friends along with them through life. That’s certainly been my experience (but yes I know that doesn’t make it science) and when I talk to other people about this that’s backed up by their lives too.

Now, there is one reason why male mental health is a particularly tricky subject. It is something that is used by the so-called Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs – it sounds like a disease, they are one) as a trojan horse to undermine women’s rights and attack women. MRAs are broadly hateful and stupid and they regard human rights as a zero sum game – so the fact women have won more rights in recent decades means men must have lost rights. And when they are called out for the misogynists they are they respond by shouting ‘male suicide’. Because suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. That’s terrible and each one is a tragedy. But part of that statistic is to do with the all-round improvement in healthy lifestyles reducing the death toll from other causes. Male mental health is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully and considerately, not by people using it as a way to shut down debate about their motives for setting up dodgy organisations that peddle lady hate.

And what the MRAs don’t tend to flag up is that more women attempt suicide than men. It’s just men attempt suicide using different, more fatal methods. Even in this grim area there are gender differences and like in every other area they are not the product of biology.

So while MRAs tend to suggest male mental health is affected by feminism not allowing them to be ‘real men’ any more I come at the issue from the other end of the telescope. That it is the straitjacket of masculinity that causes mental health problems. That stops men reaching out to each other to become friends.

I ought to define masculinity here I guess – I suppose I mean competitiveness, aggression, a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence or at least a belief that such behaviours should not be displayed, disrespect for femininity. (And if that sounds like a list of negative characteristics that’s because it is. I’d likely define femininity in negative terms too. Both are ways of artificially simplifying the complexity of the human condition.)

And since we’re on definitions I probably ought to define friendship. But I’m still working on that one. Is a friend someone you can call up and go for a pint with? Is a friend someone you’ve known a long time? Is a friend someone you go for a pint with and know that you could tell them you were having a mental health crisis, you know, if you HAD to? Is a friend someone you’ve met and liked and they like you but you don’t know each other that well?

This is relevant here because by coincidence a few weeks ago I bumped into Julianne Marriott. Is she a friend? Or an acquaintance? We met for professional reasons, our paths have crossed since and we always enjoy each other’s company over a coffee or a drink. Though I did once stand next to her on the tube for an entire journey without recognising her so that suggests acquaintance.

Julianne is involved with the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. Here’s something bringing together two themes: terrorism and mental health – the mental health of people alone not the mental health of Jo’s killer, who was of course a man who was wicked rather than ill.

The Commission, led by Tory MP Seema Kennedy and Labour’s Rachel Reeves, is focussing on different aspects of loneliness. In our increasingly atomised society it’s a growing problem that needs to be addressed. Being alone is fine, being lonely – having no-one you can reach out to – is not.

The commission’s most recent topic has been male loneliness. When I was talking to Julianne about The Man Friend Project she invited me along to an event in a men’s shed. Not just a man’s shed, that would be really weird. The Men’s Shed movement has grown in recent years. The idea is that men, particularly middle-aged and older men get together to do something. Because men do stuff. Invariably it’s woodwork or metalwork or something like that. The theory is that while men won’t discuss their problems to another man’s face, they might do so if standing shoulder to shoulder over a lathe. If a lathe is an actual thing. I know nothing about practical things which is part of the problem with the men’s shed movement. By assuming that all men are handy and like doing stuff it panders to stereotype and seeks to treat the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. But there’s a strong case to be made that you have to deal with the world as you find it so to that end it’s admirable.

And its success speaks for itself.

The men I spoke to at the shed on an estate just north of King’s Cross clearly benefit hugely from it.

A chap called Kevin told me it gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Another bloke said he’s spent most of his life being drunk but the shed had turned his life around. But I was still a bit afraid when he said he was going to batter me for being a Crystal Palace fan because he was a West Ham follower, luckily he followed that with a toothless laugh.

Ray explained that men are hit harder when they are left on their own either by divorce or bereavement and they find it harder to ask family for help. The occasional woman stops by the shed and Ray explained that kept the swearing in check. He said the people there aren’t racist, sexist or ageist which all seemed true. But they weren’t feminist either.

I also spoke to Seema Kennedy and Rachel Reeves about the whole issue. It was noisy in the shed but here’s what they had to say:

But the men there baulked when I tried to discuss friendship and feelings. They told me I was over-thinking things. They may be right.

But there is an issue here. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness have identified men as a group that requires special attention. (Seema Kennedy in the clip says there are only two groups of people, inferring men and women but she’s either being daft or disingenuous or, my preferred option, simply didn’t understand my clumsy question. The other groups I was referring to are older people, teenagers, mothers etc.)

The MRAs have sprung up because toxic masculinity is being challenged like never before, and to me that is all for the good. Others have written more persuasively and cogently than me on this topic – see Grayson Perry, Rebecca Asher was ahead of the curve with her book Man Up and look out for Chris Hemming’s forthcoming Be A Man which might be interesting coming from someone who has turned their back on lad culture.

And analysts and commentators are drawing a very short and straight line between terror and gender.

I don’t really see the need to entertain any idea that it is sex rather than gender that drives these behaviours. Cordelia Fine has driven a coach and horses through the silly ‘pink brain/blue brain’ analysis. My own book The Gender Agenda out next month that grew from the @GenderDiary Twitter account provides a wealth of examples of the way children are directed into certain behaviours from a very young age.

So toxic masculinity is being assaulted from different angles. Mine is friendship – how men make friends, how they can make more friends, how that can help with coping with life because we all need help coping with life.

I don’t know exactly where the project goes next. Get in touch with suggestions.

When I tweeted my new year’s resolution a man tweeted back to say he’d be my friend. Which was nice. But weird. But then a lot of thinking and acting around this subject feels weird, in part precisely because I’m a victim of the masculine straitjacket myself. Should I go on man dates to make friends with strangers? If I did there would be something false about the situation. Should I identify male acquaintances and look to develop them into friends? I can only do that once I understand exactly what friendship is. (It’s the old newspaper editor’s infuriating demand: ‘I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.’)

I met a friend earlier this year for a drink and started the conversation by saying “John, are you my friend?” He spluttered into his pint glass. But he agreed that he was my friend (phew!) and we kicked around the idea that I could do podcasts with friends and non-friends with the starting point of the same question: “Are you my friend?” If you’d like to hear that then encourage me and I’ll do it.

I wonder about joining groups too. My parents generation were in all sorts of clubs like Rotary and Round Table. That certainly meant they had company, but how many of those people were friends? It’s hard to say but when my dad was in hospital recently a string of Rotarians came to visit. Even if they weren’t his friends they were a support network. But nobody has the time to be in such clubs now do they? Women do. The WI is expanding at a rate of knots suggesting younger women recognise the issue of an atomised society and are doing something about it. Why is it so much harder for men to do the same? If the Women’s Institute can regenerate why isn’t the Rotary Club a hip activity for men? And I only put this out there as a question but is it because they let women in? Such clubs were bastions of the old boys network but was it the case that they couldn’t evolve into something more modern and male because masculinity is so brittle?

So there’s the Man Friend Project. Its genesis has been wide ranging. It’s future is likely to be similarly woolly. But thanks for reading. Please get in touch with suggestions, criticisms, and ideas on how to take it forward.

 

 

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